A family quilt--a central symbol in this new historical novel by poet and memoirist Paulette Jiles--does more than double duty in the work. Carted around by the oldest daughter of a family rent by the Civil War, it's her bedroll, but it also stands for family--its loss and the yen for its recovery. In practical writing terms, the quilt metaphor is equally serviceable: The novel is a patchwork of varied and disparate pieces--a love story, a grown-up girl-and-horse story, a little personal family history, straight historical exposition and a narrative pieced together by period documents.
Jiles reports that she had long entertained the notion of basing a Civil War novel on her own Missouri family, but she thought she lacked background action: She had assumed that no military engagements occurred in the region. A few years ago, after a trail ride to a "lost graveyard" in the valley of the Little Black River in southeast Missouri, she did a little historical digging. What she unearthed was a story of Civil War destruction, murder and terror that had gone essentially unreported. Perhaps, she suggests, it went long untold because it involved "just Pukes"--poor Southern whites.
What resulted is Enemy Women, which concerns a family attempting to remain politically neutral in the Confederate-sympathetic Missouri Ozarks.
It's the third year of the Civil War. His wife dead, justice of the peace and teacher Marquis Colley, focused on work and raising three daughters and a crippled son, has avoided taking sides. Nonetheless, when the undisciplined Missouri Union Militia ride through his area, they beat him, kill his animals, set fire to his house and cart him off. Determined to find her father, 18-year-old Adair marshals her sisters to walk the 120 miles to he Union fort. Brother John Lee--despite his bum arm--joins local Rebel forces. John Lee's affiliation, Adair's quick tongue and some apparent social resentments get Adair denounced as a traitor and, when she confronts the authorities at the fort, she is arrested, transported to St. Louis and incarcerated in a women's prison.
Adair both antagonizes some other inmates and captures the attention of the young Union major overseeing the facility. The focus of the plot then involves each of them attempting to survive the war and reconnect as the soldier goes to the front, and the prisoner escapes.
The power of setting and historical context saves this novel from the tedium of a predictable romance. Jiles' description is memorable and evocative. She paints a 19th-century St. Louis that's rich with atmosphere and imagery; she details effects of battle and imbues scenes of the Ozarks with an affectionate vitality: "[C] louds with precise, hard edges skated across the early-spring city sky looking as it they were infused with some sort of aerial foxfire, gleaming on the edges like white silk."
She clearly knows and appreciates her horseflesh: " ... [M] ornings would find them coming toward her where she slept, with that alert and nervous air unridden horses always have at dawn." After a mortar shot, "Two mules were down, one of them missing its forelegs, and the stumps churned in the air and hosed the men alongside with blood ... " The fate of one much-loved horse would soften even the hardest-hearted reader.
Jiles opens each chapter with historical documents that propel the action of the book and tell their own ambiguous, chilling tales of displacement, treachery, murder and sanctioned brutality. She has included Union and Confederate military dispatches, journalists' accounts, soldiers' journal and diary entries, military and civilian personal letters. These, along with passages from straight histories, prison records, newspaper accounts, biographies, recorded oral histories and such documents as coroners' reports and county histories reveal greedy lawlessness and a strikingly human face. Feature a handful of young men trying to avoid trouble who get shot through their heads when they slipped up doing what boys are apt to do--oversleep.
Jiles' personal family history raises the stakes in this project: One great-great-grandfather--like Marquis Colley--was a justice of the peace and schoolteacher who was "disappeared" by Missouri militia. She gave the younger sisters Savannah and Mary family names. Some of her research was accomplished teetering sidesaddle along Ozark trails and fording her own high stream.
In the Civil War material, Paulette Jiles has stumbled on a rich field that could well grow further fiction. As war profiteer "Greasy John" points out to Adair when she runs into him camped with a collection of "liberated" horses and military equipment, "In a war there is always just so much stuff lying around." If a weakness in the book arises from uneven piecing of the parts together, Jiles has nonetheless presented that stuff convincingly and compellingly.